Category Archives: Easter and Eastertide

And Alleluia Is Our Song: A Post-Easter Sermon

Reading: From Discourse on the Psalms, St. Augustine of Hippo

“Our thoughts in this present life should turn on the praise of God, because in the life to come we shall rejoice forever in praising God. We won’t be ready for that life of praise unless we train ourselves for it in this life now.”

“So we praise God during our earthly life, and at the same time we lift up our petitions. Our praise is expressed with joy, our petitions with yearning. For we have been promised a glory we possess now only in part. Because the promise of glory was made by the Lord who keeps promises, we trust it and are glad; but since full possession is delayed, we long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised. When yearning is over, praise alone will remain.”

“So I urge you, praise God! That is what we tell each other when we say, ‘Alleluia.’ You say to your neighbor, “Praise the Lord!” and your neighbor says the same to you. When we say, “Alleluia,” we are urging one another to praise the Lord. And this praise comes from our whole being; in other words, we praise God not with our lips and voices alone, but with our minds, our lives, and with all we have and do.”

“We are praising God now, assembled as we are here in church; but when we go on our various ways again, it may seem as if we stop praising God. But if we do not cease to live a just life, we shall always be praising God. You cease to praise God only when you swerve from the path of justice. If you never turn aside from that path, your tongue may be silent, but your life will cry aloud, Alleluia! Praise the Lord!”

 

Sermon: “And Alleluia Is Our Song”

I don’t know if you noticed, but during Lent not a single Alleluia escaped our lips in worship. Maybe you sneaked one in at home or at work, but here in this sanctuary we didn’t say or sing Alleluia for six straight weeks. And that was by design.

Banishing Alleluias in Lent is a custom that dates to the 4th century. Some congregations even have a ritual for it—the kids make alleluias out of cardboard and glitter. During worship they lock them away in a box. And there they remain until Easter Day when Easter joy resurrects them.

Alleluia is one of a handful of Hebrew words we still use in Christian worship, along with Hosanna and Amen. Words with a surplus of meaning. Words so expressive ‘as is’ that the church has never wanted to translate them.

Hosanna—the heart’s cry for salvation and deliverance.

Amen—the word of faith-filled assent, the people’s word.

And Alleluia—the shining word of praise, the transporting word that fills earth with heaven.

But not in Lent. Not in the sacrificial season. The missing Alleluia is a form of fasting. We’re meant to feel its absence and to long for its return as we long for life to spring from death.

The 4th century North African bishop, St Augustine, is credited with a famous saying about Christians—“We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” He never said it, at least not exactly that way, but he could have. He preached often about Easter and about the Easter Alleluia. He called it the believer’s defining song, the song we’ll sing forever in paradise, which is why we need to train for it now by singing it a lot on earth. It’s a song we don’t even have to voice. As long as we live justly, Augustine says, our lives will sing it for us.

Alleluia—our defining song. Without it, we aren’t fully ourselves. It’s hard, even unnatural, for us not to sing it. And so after six weeks of silence when Easter finally comes, we break out. During the Fifty Days of Eastertide, we say and sing as many Alleluias as we can, as often as we can. Like catching up on all the chocolate we gave up, or the beer, in these weeks we’re catching up on Alleluias.

By their joyful sound and sheer proliferation, we alert the whole world to what Easter has done for us—the indestructible hope it’s given us, the love we experience that never turns us away, the promise of everlasting life. When we sing Alleluia into the world, we invite everyone who hears it into that same hope, that same love, that same new life: We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.

But let’s be honest. We don’t always feel like Easter people. We don’t always feel like singing. When a brutal winter leaves us grumpy and exhausted; when an illness knocks the hope out of us; when the human mayhem and natural disaster we read about in the headlines shocks and depresses us, we find ourselves asking, Where’s Easter in all this? How in the hell can I sing Alleluia’? How in this hell can anyone sing Alleluia?

Now, that’s a good theological question, but we don’t always treat it with respect in church. Sometimes we call it ‘doubt’ and repress it. You look around and everyone else appears to be singing lustily at the top of their lungs, and if you find it hard to join in, you wonder if the problem is you: Maybe I just lack faith. Maybe if I just tried harder to believe, I could sing Alleluia in that big beautiful trumpet-y way you’re supposed to sing it. Maybe if I had more faith, I could sing it right, without the sadness of knowing how many people in this world are suffering as I sing, without the depression of knowing how many tyrants are still upon their thrones.

A composer-in-residence at a congregation I know used to write occasional pieces for the choir. One year she wrote an Easter Cantata that didn’t have a big showy trumpet part. Its lyrics were mystical, and it was mostly in a minor key. It lacked swelling crescendos. It did have an Alleluia, at the very end, but it was not particularly cheerful or triumphant. It was more poignant and wistful, deep and full of mystery.

After the service, a leader of the congregation came flying up to the pastor. He was livid. “That wasn’t Easter,” he said. “That wasn’t Easter. Don’t you ever let anything like that happen in this church again!”

By the time Easter rolled around the next year, that pastor had left that congregation to serve another, so I don’t know what they sang that holy day. What I do know is that that angry parishioner was wrong when he said, “That wasn’t Easter.” He was wrong to think that the only real Easter joy is unclouded, the only real Easter songs are energetic anthems in the key of D with soaring descants for bold sopranos.

A minor key Alleluia is as much Easter as any major one. What that dear lamb didn’t notice was how many people around him were weeping as it was being sung,, how many stones were rolling away from the entrances of their personal tombs.

That was Easter every bit as much as the first Easter was Easter—you remember, the one that happened when, while it was still dark, “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.”Like that other Mary, the sister of Lazarus, weeping outside her brother’s tomb. So many stones, So many tombs. So many tears.

“And as Mary wept,” the story goes on, “she stooped to look inside.”

Do you know what that’s like? When a life has ended, and you’re not ready for it to end? All you can do is turn and look back. Back to a past that’s leaving you behind. And you don’t want to be left behind. You would do anything to stop time from sweeping the one you love away and out of sight, while you’re stranded there, alone.

For Mary, life was wherever Jesus was. That’s how it is when you’ve grown to love someone that much. Now he’s gone, and he’s taken life with him. And to make matters worse, there’s no body. No body to weep over.

And when I hear that, I think of the family and friends of people lost in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Family and friends of African immigrants drowned at sea. The disappeared, taken by militias and never seen again. And of people buried under the rubble of earthquakes and bombed-out buildings in war-ravaged cities. No body to weep over. Just an emptiness where a living presence once had been. An emptiness, a sorrow, a hanging question.

And that’s how Easter begins. That’s how Easter unfolds. That’s where Easter always is. In all sorts of hellish places, be they global or intimate. It’s there that the Lord of Life sets up a throne.

And Mary stood weeping at the tomb. And then… ‘Mary,’ Jesus says. He returns in the midst of tears. ‘Mary,’ he says. And death gives way to life.

Easter always comes like this—in the midst of tears. We just might sing our purest Alleluias in the grave, in the ruins, in our pain, from the place of our most honest questions. It’s not a matter of more faith or better faith. Please don’t wait for perfect faith to sing an Alleluia. Just sing one wherever you are with whatever you’ve got.

Anybody can sing in the sun. When we sing in the deluge, when we refuse to stop singing no matter how bad it gets, when we choke out the song of life through tears, that’s when—that’s precisely how—the world knows that Easter is true.

In the face of all the things there are to complain about, Alleluia.

In the face of all the things there are to be angry about, Alleluia.

In the face of all the things that frighten us and make us pull back into our shells, Alleluia.

In the face of all the things that break our hearts, Alleluia.

In good times and bad, Alleluia.

With the first cup of coffee in the morning, waking up to the day God has made, Alleluia.

With our last prayer as we’re settling down to sleep—another hard day, yet studded with grace and blessing, Alleluia.

Stuck in traffic, surrounded by dozens of drivers, each with their own story, their desires, hurts, and fears, and that one behind you who just gave you the finger and hit the horn, Alleluia.

When someone you love is dying, and you feel sad and frightened, and yet there’s tenderness there, too, even holiness, in the space where people gather, in the sound of their voices mingling, and the expressions in their faces as they keep vigil, Alleluia!

When your newest grandchild comes into the world, and so much joy breaks forth you forth you’d think it was the first baby ever born, and you can’t help but worry what kind of world you are giving her, Alleluia.

When you turn another year older and you don’t want to think about what year it is, Alleluia.

When you fail others, when you look inside and see how much work Christ’s resurrection still has to do in you, Alleluia.

When you read the paper or listen to the news and grieve, when you become angry, impatient and frustrated, or you just plain yearn with all your heart for the kingdom of God to come, to finally come, Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

We are Easter people. People who know that life has triumphed over death but that somehow the battle still slogs on. People with one foot in joy and the other in longing. People of the already and the not yet.

Alleluia is our song.

A song sung with lives that try to be loving and just. A song lived out against the odds. With or without descants and trumpets, in major and in minor keys, in harmony, in community, alongside some who belt it out and others who can barely whisper, we laugh it into the world, we weep it into the world, we do whatever it takes to sing, ‘Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia…’

Easy to Please [Luke 24:28]

679px-Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_Emaus

–Duccio di Buoninsegna

Luke 24:28  As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther.

What a revealing line: Jesus was fishing for an invitation! Here he is risen from the dead, enjoying a brand new life, yet he’s still hanging around his slow-witted friends, unable to shake off his desire—his need?—to be near them. So he acts as if he intends another journey to some other destination. But he’s really hoping they’ll notice and say, “Wait, don’t go! Stay with us!” You can almost see his heart leap out of his chest when they do.

After he goes in with them and breaks the bread, they know him. They also recall that their hearts were burning as he explained scripture to them on the road. But long before their hearts burned, Jesus’ heart was on fire—on fire with friendship renewed. Glad beyond words to be back beside us on the road. Glad to be sitting down with us again as evening falls and the lights come on. So very glad to taste again the special flavor bread has when shared with those you love.

Jesus is always angling for an invitation. Ask him in, he’ll come. Even to the likes of us. He’s easy to please. It takes so little to make him glad. We, on the other hand are more wary of strangers, far less inclined to press one to stay, to sit with us, to dine. What joy might we be missing? What burning heart? And what delicious bread?

Prayer  So many travelers on the roads of the world, O God! When night falls, they press on alone. Teach us to say, “Stay with us! Stay and share the meal, the joy, the great good news, the blazing heart.”

Sealed with A Kiss [John 20:19-23]

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Most of Jesus’ friends abandoned him after his arrest. They found a place to hide, locked the doors, dragged over the couch, and piled up chairs. They were afraid the authorities would find them and arrest them too. But they got found anyway. By Jesus.

Somehow he got through the barricade and spoke to them.

What did he say?

“You cowards!”

No.

“I’m disappointed in you.”

No.

“It’s payback time.”

No.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace be with you.”

As if nothing bad had happened three days before. As if they’d never hurt him.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace.”

Now “Shalom” was an ordinary word. A way to say, “Good morning,” or “Good-bye.” It was an all-purpose greeting, as normal as “Hi, how are you?

Picture it, then—Jesus walks through doors to be with friends who never expected to see him again. After what they’d done to him, they probably hoped they never would.

Now he’s here. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, no.” But he’s saying, “Hi.” Shalom.

And with that one ordinary word, their hearts fill up with blessing as beautiful as the blessing God said over creation in the beginning.

With that one, everyday word, their dreary hiding place turns into the Garden of delights Adam and Eve enjoyed before they listened to the Snake.

When Jesus says that unexpected, ordinary little word, it’s like the first day of creation all over again. Morning breaks like the first morning, blackbird speaks like the first bird, and there’s dewfall on the first grass.

“Peace,” he says, and his beleaguered, frightened, wounded, confused, self-protecting, weak, vacillating, sinful, fair-weather friends are made new.

Shalom.

In other words, “It’s over. It’s past. We begin again.”

And then, the story says, he breathed on them.

Just like when God breathed into a lump of clay once upon a time, and the first human came alive, Jesus breathed on his lumpy, lifeless friends. He moved around the room and breathed on them.

It was like he planted a big breathy kiss on each of them.

Or like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which makes sense, since he was on a rescue mission. His disciples were as good as dead. Worry and shame had sucked the life right out of them. So he kissed them with God’s breath. The breath entered them, and they came to life.

Shalom.

And then he commissioned the “kissees” to become “kissers.” To go and breathe God’s healing breath on the whole wide world. He made them emissaries of breathing. People who’d do for others what he’d done for them—to show mercy where no mercy is expected; to pardon when no pardon is deserved; to go around the circle of the world planting God’s kiss on everything.

The early Christians also took that kiss and turned it into a ritual. They practiced it among themselves when they gathered on Sundays to worship. They did it every week so that no one would ever forget the new lease on life Jesus gives us; so that no one would ever forget his command to share his life with the world. They passed the peace.

Now in ancient times when a worship leader said, “Share with each other a sign of peace!”, people actually kissed. And some church members liked it so much they smooched their way around the circle several times. Some tried to practice exotic kissing techniques too. Church leaders had to make strict rules about the kiss of peace. But they never did away with it.

We’re still doing it. Every Sunday. Minus the exotic smooching. Handshakes and hugs are more our style.

Most of us like this time in worship. But some people don’t. They’re bothered by all the hubbub. Some worry about germs. Sometimes people who have suffered unwanted touches feel a little unsafe in all the hugging and handshaking, even thought they know they’re among friends. One woman in my former church didn’t like it because she sometimes fought with her husband on the way to church, and by the time they got to their pew they weren’t speaking. Then, ten minutes later they had to turn to each other and say, “Peace be with you,” and mean it.

It can be awkward. It can require some safeguards. It can be annoying. But we keep doing it. We can’t do without it. Because the more we do it, the greater the chance that what it stands for will come true. The greater the chance that Jesus’ refreshing life will become our own. The greater the chance that over time, a little word and a human touch will bring us back from all the places in our lives where we are dead or dying, restore us to the Garden, to the land of the living, to the ranks of the dearly loved. And the greater the chance we’ll also heed the call to be emissaries of pardon and peace in the world.

It’s not important how we do it—shake hands, hug, nod, good eye contact. What matters is to stand in the midst of a broken world and in the midst of an imperfect church, say “Shalom,” and mean it. What matters is that we assure each other, “It’s okay, it’s over, we can begin again. Jesus is with us.”

It’s important, this moment when we turn to each other and really intend the healing peace of Christ for people we know well and love a lot, for people we know too well and dislike a lot, for strangers we don’t know at all, and for the one who always picks a fight on the way to church.

The promise in this practice is that Sunday by Sunday, Christ’s peace will resurrect us from the little deaths of anger, anxiety, resentment, shame, fear, and narrowness we die each day. Sunday by Sunday, giving and receiving peace will become a habit, so that wherever we go, whomever we meet, our first and last word to all will be, “Shalom.”

Jesus once burst into a hiding place and said to his ashamed disciples, “Shalom.” In this room today, some of us are ashamed of something, or restless about the past, or anxious about the future, or fearful that God is mad at us, or doubtful about God’s care for us. Some of us are just tired. We have broken hearts. We worry about family and friends. Life is hard. We need all the life we can get.

Lucky for us, it’s here. In hugs, handshakes, and a holy word. Peace.

Christ is among us. No barriers we build can keep him away. No fear or shame of ours can overcome his eagerness for us, the apple of his eye, the loves of his life.

Every week he comes into our midst and gives us the ancient gift again. Shalom. Peace.

A new day. A new chance. A new beginning. A fresh and durable hope.

Shalom. Peace.

Receive it with joy. And pass it on.

 

Preaching the Thomas Text (John 20:19-31)

In the traditional reading of thiDoubting_Thomas_sms post-resurrection appearance, Jesus rebukes Thomas for doubting and commends believers who come to faith without requiring the “proof” of nail marks. This reading still stands up, I think, even if many preachers these days like to present Thomas as a model for people who struggle to believe, reassuring their listeners that doubt is a normal, even necessary, part of a life of faith that is honest and maturing. Hardly any of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament ignores the vexed nature of Easter faith (see for example, Lk 24:41; Mt 28:17). It is only fair and helpful, then, to point out that if we have trouble believing, we are not the first, and we are not alone.

What a “doubt is a good thing” reading of this story may miss, however, is its ecclesial dimension. When one looks at the story through that lens, Thomas may not be guilty so much of incredulity as he is of singularity. Asking for evidence (the same evidence Jesus had already granted to the others in v. 20) is not his biggest problem; refusing to trust the witness of sisters and brothers is. He doubts the resurrection of Jesus, but more significantly he doubts that the church has faith and wisdom to give him to supply his lack. Thomas wants a private experience, a revelation of his own, prefiguring not so much our modern intellectual rejection of particular articles of the creed as our unwillingness to grant the tradition any wisdom that does not first pass the test of private reason, personal experience, and emotional comfort. Thomas was “not with them” (v. 24) in more than a geographical sense.

Jesus does not commend unseeing believers (v. 29) because they accept the “fact,” much less the doctrine of his resurrection, but because they trust the church’s testimony. They open-heartedly receive the tradition of his rising. They are “together” in this handed-on faith that is not the private accomplishment of any one of them. The communal way in which we come to faith is an important preoccupation of this story, and of many others that were recorded, John says, so that we might come to believe (v. 31); but believing as such is not the final goal. The reason the evangelist is eager for us to believe in the first place is “so that [we] might have life” (v. 31), life with Jesus—a life found most richly and mysteriously through insertion in the fellowship of disciples. It is not for nothing that the other readings this Sunday focus on the fellowship (Acts 4:32-35; Ps 133; 1 Jn 1:1-2:1) and aim, in part at least, to impress upon us “how good and pleasant” (Ps 133) a company it is.

In contrast to the idea that a person comes to faith through an individually-achieved struggle for private conviction in this small moment now, the preacher might present coming to Christian faith as a shared project of trust and mutual traditioning in an ample fellowship of believers of all times and places who, by the grace and power of the Spirit, edify one another in strength, and supply one another in lack.

We might speak of the church in this season of Easter as a company of disciples learning to pool the gift of faith, eagerly inquiring into and trusting each other’s experience of God, and ever building thereby a great storehouse of small faith and great, new and seasoned, questioning and serene, from which we borrow and to which we lend, generation to generation, until he comes again.

Another tack for preaching the text is to remove the spotlight we always shine on Thomas and put it back on Jesus, the first born from the dead. His bodily appearance is full of mystery, to be sure, and one could get sidetracked attempting to explain the physics of his penetration of that locked door or the funky nature of resurrection bodies. Better to ponder instead the tender condescension of the Living One. He knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them encompassing shalom. He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes Spirit into their flagging hearts. He knows they have lost their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation. He knows they can hardly believe he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—he shows them his wounds. He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the following week to make sure the Twin is not left out. He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination.

It is not surprising that in the presence of such immense tenderness, our text says (in what has to be one of the biggest understatements of the Bible) that the disciples “rejoiced.” The preacher could frame Easter in these terms, as the in-breaking of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, and restorative love like this, for all.

The preacher might also wish to inquire into the ethical edges of the text. A starting point might be Jesus’ refusal to blame and exact his due, thus breaking the relentlessly violent cycle of revenge by which the ordinary world turns. One might also explore further the text’s stunning image of a Risen One who in the life of glory does not leave his wounds behind—the signs of his passion for us persist in his new flesh, such that when we see similar scars in the flesh of the neighbor, or on the body of the world, we will recognize him; and as we place our hands in mending on the wounded ones he loves, we too will exclaim on awed and bended knee, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).

An Eastertide Reflection: Judas, Peter, and the Apostate Church

800px-The_Denial_of_Saint_Peter-Caravaggio_(1610)–Peter’s Denial, Caravaggio

I think Christian tradition has been too hard on Judas and too easy on Peter. Judas sold Jesus to the authorities, but he never lied about knowing him. His betrayal was terrible, but it was up close, to Jesus’ face, sealed with a kiss, among friends. Peter kept his distance. He wouldn’t even say Jesus’ name. Among strangers he denied all ties to “that man.” He sought warmth by a fire while his Teacher was tortured. His renunciation was as cold as that night was cold.

Tradition turned Judas into the evil archetype of betrayers. In two places in scripture we are told that he met a gruesome end, and the implication is that it was well-deserved. In Christian imagination, he ranks just a fraction of a notch above Lucifer. Unforgivable.

Tradition turned Peter into the impetuous disciple who could never quite get or stay with the program, but whose heart was always in the right place. Peter was clueless, lovable, a little pathetic. And forgivable.

We are told that Peter wept bitterly when the cock crowed and he remembered Jesus’ prediction about his triple betrayal. We are told that Judas wept too. His remorse was profound. When he could not undo it, returning the silver, he despaired of forgiveness. He could not live with what he had done, We don’t know why Judas despaired, or why Peter did not, but because Peter held on, he became the symbolic heart of the nascent church. Because Judas could not hold on, he became an eternal embarrassment and a terrible shame.

I have reflected elsewhere on the regret I feel that the Story has Judas dead and gone before Jesus rises.* Every year at Easter, my imagination feels compelled to re-write the scriptural account to save him. If Peter lived to experience Christ’s mercy pour out for him from the empty tomb, why not Judas too, even though he died? Do you have any doubt that Jesus forgave him? Do you have any doubt that one of the fish on the fire that morning by the lake was for him?

We let Peter off the hook, but Peter did not. Even after the encounter at breakfast with the risen Jesus on the beach, even after making his triple affirmation of love, Peter never forgot what he did. When the time of trial came for him again, his legend goes, he refused to be crucified in the same manner as the Friend he did not deserve. He demanded instead that his tormentors nail him to the cross head down. I think the church would do better to remember Peter not as we have re-made him, a lovable bumbler, but as Peter knew himself, an unworthy betrayer of the first magnitude, on a par with Judas.

They are not that different, Judas and Peter. They belong close together in the church’s memory, not far apart, as if Peter were a success story and Judas a failure. As if the goal of discipleship were to get it right instead of to live in perpetual need of mercy, to know oneself permanently in need of healing, pardon, and peace.

We idealize the apostles of the first church as moral heroes and brave martyrs, and when we do, we miss the most compelling thing about those earliest followers and their mission: it was all about the mystery of weakness; it was all about the mystery of grace. Here’s what I said about this mystery in the reflection I alluded to above:

These days, many congregations want to renew themselves. They ask questions about identity and purpose—who are we as a church, what is our mission, how can we be more faithful? Well, here is a model we might all consider to our benefit—the earliest church, which was nothing more than a few sinful, weak, mortified disciples huddled around a fire tended by Jesus, eating with him. A church composed of apostates, guilty of denials and betrayals and fearful flight. A church born not in rising to the occasion, but in running from it. A congregation of weakness and shame. A fellowship of the unforgivable.

Just the kind of church Jesus wanted. The kind of church he’ll always love. The kind of church to which he will always come, in which he will always dwell, to which he will always tend with the sweetest condescension. The kind of church in which any Peter or any Judas would feel at home.

The best thing any church could hope for is to be filled with Judases and Peters. People whose lives are marked by the humiliation and the humility that come from knowing exactly what they deserved but did not get. People whose actions in the church and in the world are characterized therefore by the most reverent tenderness for the weaknesses of others. For their cruelties and betrayals. For their unpardonable sins.

The straightest route to faithfulness any church can take is through human fragility, where the depths of guilt and shame are met by the unrelenting, anticipatory, all-covering, blame-withholding mercy of the Lord.

If what we strive for instead is a church of the strong, the good, the steadfast, the productive, the able, the clever, and the powerful (even the spiritually powerful) who are perfectly capable of cooking breakfast for themselves, we may never have a church at all. And we might never have a mission either, because feeding Jesus’ lambs, inviting the whole world to come and have breakfast, sharing with others the mercy bestowed once upon a time around a charcoal fire—these are not things you can do if you’ve never been around that fire yourself, waiting for the other shoe to drop, if you’ve never felt the joy of realizing it isn’t going to drop—ever; if you’ve never understood how much you actually owe, and how clean the ledger has actually been wiped.

It is precisely the ones who should never have been forgiven, but who were, who are called to tend Jesus’ sheep. It’s not something he entrusts to just anyone. He seeks out the worst for the job. And he makes them the best by love.

By love alone.

___________

Prayer of Praise C3 Easter [John 21:1-19]

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–Miniature from Ludolf of Saxony’s Vita Christi attributed to Jacques de Besançon, 15 c.

We go fishing without you,

angling for hope

in the deep lake of dismay,

but we

who know so much about fishing

catch nothing.

Then you come,

indistinct at first light,

and hail our hearts

across the morning lake.

You name our ineffectual striving.

At your command,

we let down useless nets again.

Our hearts know what’s next.

This time they come up tensing

with riches from the sea,

while on the shore you wait,

tending mercy’s fire,

preparing to speak of love.

Praise, honor and glory to you,

O Living Christ,

now and forever!

Amen.

Preaching Thomas on “Low Sunday” — Some Possible Pathways

Doubting_Thomas_sm

John 20:19-31

In the traditional reading of this post-resurrection appearance, Jesus rebukes Thomas for doubting and commends believers who come to faith without requiring the proof of nail marks. This reading still stands up, I think, even if many preachers these days prefer to present Thomas as a model for people who struggle to believe, reassuring their listeners that doubt is a normal, even necessary, part of faith that is honest and maturing. None of the post-resurrection stories in the New Testament ignores the vexed nature of Easter faith. It is only fair and helpful, then, to point out that if we have trouble believing, we are not the first, and we are not alone.

What a “doubt is a good thing” reading of this story may miss, however, is its ecclesial dimension. When one looks at the story through that lens, Thomas may not be guilty so much of incredulity as he is of singularity. Asking for evidence (the same evidence Jesus had already granted to the others in v. 20) is not his biggest problem; refusing to trust the witness of sisters and brothers is.

He doubts the resurrection of Jesus, but more significantly he doubts that the church has faith and wisdom to give him to supply his lack. Thomas wants a private experience, a revelation of his own, prefiguring not so much our modern intellectual rejection of particular articles of the creed as our post-modern unwillingness to grant the tradition any wisdom that does not first pass the test of private reason, personal experience, and emotional comfort. Thomas was “not with them” (v. 24) in more than a geographical sense.

Jesus does not commend unseeing believers (v. 29) because they accept the “fact,” much less the “doctrine” of the resurrection, but because they trust the church’s testimony. They open-heartedly receive the tradition of his rising. They are “together” in this handed-on faith that is not the private accomplishment of any one of them.

The communal way in which we come to faith is an important preoccupation of this story, and of many others that were recorded, John says, so that we might come to believe (v. 31); but believing as such is not the final goal. The reason the evangelist is eager for us to believe in the first place is “so that [we] might have life” (v. 31), life with Jesus—a life found most richly and mysteriously through insertion in the fellowship of disciples. It is not for nothing that the other readings this Sunday focus on the fellowship (Acts 4:32-35; Ps 133; 1 Jn 1:1-2:1) and aim, in part at least, to impress upon us “how good and pleasant” (Ps 133) a company it is.

In contrast to the idea that a person comes to faith through an individually-achieved struggle for private conviction in this small moment now, the preacher might present coming to Christian faith as a shared project of trust and mutual traditioning in an ample fellowship of believers of all times and places who, by the grace and power of the Spirit, edify one another in strength, and supply one another in lack.

We might speak of the church in this season of Easter as a company of disciples learning to pool the gift of faith, eagerly inquiring into and trusting each other’s experience of God, and ever building thereby a great storehouse of small faith and great, new and seasoned, questioning and serene, from which we borrow and to which we lend, generation to generation, until he comes again.

Another avenue for preaching the text is to remove the spotlight we always shine on Thomas and put it back on Jesus, the first born from the dead. His bodily appearance is full of mystery, to be sure, and one could get sidetracked attempting to explain the physics of his penetration of that locked door or the funky nature of resurrection bodies. Better to ponder instead the tender condescension of the Living One.

He knows his disciples are afraid for their lives—he grants them encompassing shalom.

He knows they need his continued presence and power—he breathes Spirit into their flagging hearts.

He knows they have lost their sense of purpose—he commissions them to a ministry of witness and reconciliation.

He knows they can hardly believe he is their Jesus, the same one who was nailed to the cross—he shows them his wounds.

He knows Thomas is missing—he comes back the following week to make sure the Twin is not left out.

He knows the last thing they need to hear is that they failed him miserably and he is disappointed—he utters not a single word of recrimination. It is not surprising that in the presence of such immense tenderness, our text says (in what has to be one of the biggest understatements of the Bible) that the disciples “rejoiced.” The preacher could frame Easter in these terms, as the in-breaking of a new age to come in which there will be only compassion, peace, and restorative love like this, for all.

The preacher might also wish to inquire into the ethical edges of the text. A starting point might be Jesus’ refusal to blame and exact his due, thus breaking the relentlessly violent cycle of revenge by which the ordinary world turns.

One might also explore further the text’s stunning image of a Risen One who in the life of glory does not leave his wounds behind—the signs of his passion for us persist in his new flesh, such that when we see similar scars in the flesh of the neighbor, or on the body of the world, we will recognize him. And as we place our hands in mending on the wounded ones he loves, we too will exclaim on awed and bended knee before them, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).